Caroline Hampden-White becomes a Bond girls for the night and joins Alessandro Palazzi, Head Bartender in Duke’s hotel bar, in London’s fashionable St. James’s. It’s an area of money (mostly old), power and influence and a famous haunt of Ian Flemming…
“Can I smoke a cigar out the back?” was the question.
With a smile and a small bow came the reply: “Only if it’s a nice cigar.”
“Ok, I’d better check out what you’ve got.”
“They’re all good here; they’re Cuban.”
This epitomises Alessandro Palazzi’s attitude towards the serous things in life, like family, food and fabulous drinks. At 57, this neat, compact Italian has seen more of life than most. Alessandro’s career has taken him to the very best places in some wide-ranging locations. He spent time in California, and though the experience meant he “could easily write a script for Tarantino!”, it also gave him itchy feet. He moved between the George V and a slew of top London establishments including the Berkeley, the Connaught and the Mandarin Oriental, as well as Perugia and the Ritz in Paris. It was whilst working in this latter that he met his wife, who was working in another fine Parisian hotel, Le Bristol.
He is a great admirer of British food and drink and passionate about Scotch whisky. He loves the Isla whisky festival and goes whenever he can. He has distilled his concepts about the best bars and how they should be run as carefully as he distils his signature amber Vermouth, exclusive to Duke’s bar in the eponymous hotel.
He is something of an authority on Ian Flemming, whose association with Duke’s bar goes back a long way. Post Second World War, Flemming used hard-won military expertise to bring his hero, James Bond, alive on the page. Later, Bond began to appear on the silver screen also, but Alessandro says “I prefer the books. In the books, Bond breaks the rules”.
Alessandro is not dissimilar, describing himself as a “black sheep” – breaking boundaries and beating the bad guys to become the best. Bar tending is a cut-throat business you know; don’t underestimate the lengths to which people will go… One such boundary was his appointment of the first female bartender at Duke’s. Hitherto it had been a very well-heeled, but very male domain. That’s a characteristic of Alessandro’s; he looks for the keenest talent and hires nothing but the best.
Sitting beneath portraits of august gentlemen, including the current Duke of Kent, the atmosphere is part gentleman’s club, part society drawing room. This place brings to mind some of the smarter, more private bars in which we find Bond. After his wet shave around the corner in St. James’s Street’s Truefitt & Hill termed: “the finest traditional gentlemen's barber and perfumer in London for over two centuries”, Flemming would repair to the bar at Duke’s to start the day’s drinking properly with one of their superlative martinis.
Peruse the menu, walk through the delights on every page. When you’re ready, Alessandro and his custom-made drinks trolley glide over to mix your drink in front of you. It’s reminiscent of Simpson’s on the Strand, where the glistening slabs of meat carved beside your table are placed in front of you before you can say Yorkshire pudding.
The menu contains many good things cleverly designed in homage to Flemming and Bond. Ingredients reflect the people and scenes in the stories. Take “Le Chiffre”, which contains chilli vodka, hot like Bond’s anger while losing at the gaming table; cold like the tears from le Chiffre’s disfigured eye.
They keep bottles of gin, vodka and other necessaries in the freezer, as well as the glasses. A giant bottle of Snow Queen, appropriately encrusted with ice, returns to its frozen throne, ready for the next person in need of its restorative powers.
Alessandro prepares for me a “Baron Samedi”, so named for the villain from Live and Let Die. About to touch my lips to the glass before me, an American gentleman a few tables away rises, bows and addresses those sitting around him. His request is easy to fulfil – that we join him in toasting his wife on their thirteenth wedding anniversary, that very day. She isn’t actually there; he’s surrounded by a genial group of what look like business men. Perhaps he’s a modern day Felix Leiter. I do hope the lady in question was enjoying a martini half as good as the Vesper in her husband’s glass, for martinis are the speciality here and they serve around two thousand of them a month. Of course, that’s not the only drink they serve and the bar holds approximately 50 people. You do the maths.
A tang of ginger, accompanied by one of orange and a delightful freshness from the Dalwhinnie. Baron Samedi and I are joined at last and I’m under his spell. It’s a deceptively light, fragrant and aromatic cocktail and the more of it you drink, the more you detect the subtle tones of the tiny amount of chocolate vodka used in its preparation.
Playing further with quasi-religious themes, the Vesper martini is joined on the menu by another wonderful Bond-themed whisky cocktail: the “Evensong”. It’s strong and tangy; the slight bitterness is very refreshing. The Gaelic Italian is a rainbow of flavours as vivid as the pairing of those two cultures. It uses classic Scottish and Italian ingredients including Coal Isla distiller’s edition and Passito di Pantelleria, a Moscato wine made from dried grapes grown in Italy's most southerly territory, the island of Pantelleria. There are citrus notes in the background and the peat from the Coal Isla goes all the way through the drink from the first sip to the very last.
I’d wager Alessandro’s clever concoctions would rival anything that Flemming drank at Duke’s and my instinct says that what’s served now is probably even better.
With his love of booze, service, the UK and Japan, Alessandro has much in common with Bond. Bond might be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; we can delight in the understated theatre of Alessandro’s service, and that of his team, in this swanky establishment where they blend of glamour and sophistication, so that the best of Bond can live on.
By Caroline Hampden-White